Review: The Subtle Knife

Philip Pullman (1997)

We readers remember the first time that a book took our breath away, knocked us for a loop, took us by surprise, or maybe brought us to tears, so immersed were we in the story. For me, that book was Charlotte’s Web. I distinctly remember where I was sitting and how devastated I felt when Charlotte died. I cried. A book actually brought me to tears, and I loved it.

Reading The Subtle Knife, (actually tearing through it as fast as I could,) reminded me of that feeling—completely immersed in the story and caring about the characters as if they were real. At one point, I finished a chapter, put the book down, emotionally drained, and said, “Noooooo!”  And I loved that this book had rocked my world.

The Subtle Knife is technically children’s fantasy, (I found it in the “Junior High” section of my library), but it’s such an exciting tale, and actually quite complex, that anyone who enjoys getting completely lost in a great story will enjoy reading it. It’s the second book in His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, and I can’t wait to read the third.

I first heard about this author when I read a magazine article praising the trilogy and comparing them to Harry Potter, and more appropriately The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.  The author intrigued me, as did the story, so I read the first one last year.  I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t until now that I took up the second.

At heart, it’s a story of supreme good versus evil, a battle for the fate of the world, or actually a universe of worlds.  Steeped in magic, theology, science and philosophy, the action takes place in parallel worlds, ours and one that is very similar, yet very different.  The central character is a headstrong orphan named Lyra Belacqua, a special child with an important fate.  As the first novel, The Golden Compass, unfolds, she (and the reader) learns her parentage and her destiny.  In The Subtle Knife she’s joined by a boy named Will, a human who’s somehow linked to Lyra and the inevitable war that’s building in the arctic north. Together, they make a dangerous and exciting journey, half in this world and half in the other.

Bouncing between realities, and different storylines, Pullman weaves a page-turner of a novel.  He’s created some great characters: Serafina Pekkala, the queen of the witches, riding pine branches and charged with protecting Lyra; Lee Scoresby, a Texan aeronaut who pilots a hot air balloon; and Mrs. Coulter, a beautiful woman with a deadly purpose, and a strong connection to Lyra who becomes her sworn enemy.  And then there are the animals.  In this story, people are connected to a daemon, an animal familiar that reflects the inner-self and is separated from the person only by death. In children, daemons have the ability to transform from one animal to another, but once they grow to adulthood, their daemon takes on a single form. Rabbit, osprey, snake, monkey, snow leopard, moth, daemons take many forms and play important roles in the story as well.

It’s only a matter of time before this incredible trilogy is brought to the big screen, and it should give Harry Potter a run for its money.  This story—which resonates more profoundly than Harry’s story and in far less time (pages)—is crying out for a cinematic telling, but don’t wait until 2005 (the script for The Golden Compass is just now being written by Tom Stoppard,) because you’ll deprive yourself of a fantastic reading experience.


2 thoughts on “Review: The Subtle Knife

  1. I found the Dark Materials trilogy far more inventive and full of amazing ideas and images than Harry Potter. I also highly recommend them!

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